The United States is reviewing the way it gathers intelligence. This has now become a tired and oft-repeated phrase coming from the Obama administration, as disclosures continue to reveal the far-reaching extent to which the U.S. spies on its allies.
The latest, groundbreaking leak: the U.S. has been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone for more than 10 years.
While U.S. officials have been summoned to explain themselves to different European leaders—Spain being the latest—aides to President Obama, from press secretary Jay Carney to Secretary of State John Kerry, have said there is currently a review underway to determine where the American spying program should go in the coming years.
But finally, there's a sense of when exactly the Obama administration will release details of this review: by the end of the year, according to Carney.
Speaking on Monday, Carney was vague about the current review and said he would not specifically address the latest disclosures from Edward Snowden. Still, Carney said there's already been progress as the U.S. contemplates spying agreements with some of its allies, including Germany.
"Even as that work is being done, some decisions have been made that reflect the president felt desire to find the proper balance," Carney said at his daily press briefing.
There are currently two reviews ongoing. One is within the White House, run out of the National Security Council, which is what Carney is referencing. The other is an outside group, consisting of members that were appointed by President Obama—including the former acting director of the CIA, Mike Morell, and Cass Sunstein, the husband of U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and former head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
White House officials have insisted that Obama did not know about many of these intelligence-gathering practices, including the tapping of Merkel's phone. While the president receives a daily intelligence briefing, former officials have noted that the sources of the intelligence are not normally given to the president directly, but instead to aides.
Still, this has launched a debate in Washington about whether the team that Obama surrounds himself with is being forthright enough for him to do his job properly.
For the last several weeks, as reporters have hounded the White House for details about the U.S. intelligence program, officials continue to repeat the same phrase over and over again. Here are some examples:
- Readout of Vice President Joe Biden's meeting with Italian Senate President Pietro Grasso on Oct. 25: "The vice president made clear that the administration is reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance protecting the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share."
- Carney on Oct. 23: "The U.S. is reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share."
- Readout of Obama's call with Merkel on Oct. 23: "As the president has said, the United States is reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share."
- Kerry on Oct. 21 in Paris: "As President Obama said very clearly in a recent speech that he gave at the United Nations General Assembly just a few weeks ago, he said we in the United States are currently reviewing the way that we gather intelligence."
- Obama on Sept. 24 before the United Nations: "And just as we reviewed how we deploy our extraordinary military capabilities in a way that lives up to our ideals, we've begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share."
National Security Adviser Susan Rice even tweeted this on Monday:
Our review of the way we gather intelligence is rigorous and ongoing.— Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) October 28, 2013
Now that we know the review will come at the end of the year, will it stop the questions that bring on this tired phrase?
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who said that there are still thousands of U.S. intelligence documents that he has not published, will continue to disclose information about NSA programs. And each time that he will publish details about these programs, journalists will press the White House to confirm the reports. And each time, Carney will again say, "The U.S. is reviewing the way that we gather intelligence."
So, expect this tired talking point for another two months.